DC electric current signals may also be used to communicate process measurement information
from transmitters to controllers, indicators, recorders, alarms, and other input devices. Recall that
the purpose of a transmitter is to sense some physical variable (e.g. pressure, temperature, flow)
and then report that quantity in the form of a signal, in this case a 4 to 20 milliamp DC current
proportional to that measured quantity. The simplest form of 4-20 mA measurement loop is one
where the transmitter has two terminals for the 4-20 mA signal wires to connect, and two more
terminals where a power source connects. These transmitters are called “4-wire” or self-powered.
The current signal from the transmitter connects to the process variable input terminals of the
controller to complete the loop:
Typically, process controllers are not equipped to directly accept milliamp input signals, but
rather voltage signals. For this reason we must connect a precision resistor across the input terminals to convert the 4-20 mA signal into a standardized analog voltage signal that the controller can understand. A voltage signal range of 1 to 5 volts is standard, although some models of controller use different voltage ranges and therefore require different precision resistor values. If the voltage range is 1-5 volts and the current range is 4-20 mA, the precision resistor value must be 250 ohms.
Since this is a digital controller, the input voltage at the controller terminals is interpreted by
an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) circuit, which converts the measured voltage into a digital
number that the controller’s microprocessor can work with.
In some installations, transmitter power is supplied through additional wires in the cable from a
power source located in the same panel as the controller:
The obvious disadvantage of this scheme is the requirement of two more conductors in the cable.
More conductors means the cable will be larger-diameter and more expensive for a given length.
Cables with more conductors will require larger electrical conduit to fit in to, and all field wiring
panels will have to contain more terminal blocks to marshal the additional conductors. If no suitable electrical power source exists at the transmitter location, though, a 4-wire cable is necessary to service a 4-wire transmitter.